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Remote work works for the environment

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More than 1,300 workers at the New York Times just said that they are not coming back to the office, despite the fact their employer wants them back working at least three days per week. Things at NBC aren’t much better, with similar rumblings heard at AppleGoogle and JPMorgan Chase. Remote work is a legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic with over half of U.S. workers polled saying they would like to work from home permanently, and 64 percent of workers would consider quitting altogether if they were forced back to the office. Gallup estimates that more than 70 million workers (56 percent of full-time employees in the U.S.) can do their job working remotely.

So, why are employers pushing so hard to get their workers back in the office, given the tight job market and the willingness of workers to quit? Working from home can pay tremendous dividends, not only for employees and employers, but for the environment as well.

In 1987, I was attending a medical meeting in Orange County, California. It was a Friday, and while waiting for fellow attendees at the top floor of our hotel, I walked over to a vast expanse of floor to ceiling windows and looked out. Instead of palm trees and skyline, I saw a dirty gray cloud about 5 stories below that completely obscured my view. Coming from Florida, I had never seen such a thing, but a fellow physician who was local to the area assured me that it was just “normal southern California smog.” The next day, the air was clear, the landscape green, and the skyline striking. “What happened to the smog?” I asked, to which my colleague replied— “Oh…there’s no rush hour traffic on the weekends, so everything clears up.”

Fast forward to April 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and Los Angeles was reported as having the cleanest air recorded since 1995. This was attributed to less commuter and airline traffic, with fewer carbon emissions, and less ammoniaparticulates and nitrogen oxides. The air had cleared up again, just as I had seen happen over 30 years before.

In 2013, I started working as a senior medical director for a Fortune 10 health insurance company. I supervised physicians and nurses working remotely all over the country.

Initially, I was skeptical that I could effectively supervise people who were working from home, but I soon realized that I was able to get more done at home than I ever did in the office. No longer did I have to contend with bumper-to-bumper traffic, bedbug infestations, communicable diseases or having my people “call out” because of bad weather. With a computer and a reliable internet connection, we could do everything necessary for our jobs. My employees were happy and job turnover was almost non-existent.

With company-supplied computers, monitors, printers, high-speed internet access and a VPN, outages and downtime were rare. Meetings were easily facilitated with secure messaging, VoIP phone and streaming video platforms. When the COIVD-19 pandemic hit, my company was well-prepared, but other companies struggled, as they were forced to implement remote work policies with little planning or experience, and that struggle likely soured many on continuing the practice after the pandemic waned.

Remote work always comes with the concern that people are not doing their best work if they aren’t being supervised in person. My employer had a checklist of requirements that you would attest to on an annual basis. Barking dogs and crying children were sometimes heard on conference calls, but everyone soon learned how to use the “mute” button.

There was productivity software that could track an employee’s workload and performance, but if someone was slacking, you would usually hear about it from their fellow workers, long before any software algorithms picked it up. Was “Big Brother” watching? Absolutely, but that was the quid pro quo for being able to work from home, and the specter of losing that privilege and returning to the office kept most people honest.

According to recent 2020 Census statistics, the average travel time to work is about 28 minutes, with only 5 percent of the working population using public transportation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that a typical gas passenger vehicle emits 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year and an average electrical vehicle is responsible for about 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide per year when the power generation necessary to charge it is taken into account. 

In 2015, CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion in the U.S. building sector generated over half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in direct emissions, making buildings the fourth highest emitting sector. When indirect CO2 emissions from the use of electricity generated off-site are factored in, residential and commercial buildings generated almost 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 29 percent of total U.S. emissions. There is an enormous amount of unnecessary pollution that could be avoided, if only more workers were allowed to work from home.

Of course, not all occupations lend themselves to remote work — the service sector for example, but it is ironic that while some tech companies are forcing their employees to come back into the office, their hardware and software products are allowing the rest of us to telecommute.

Congress should draft and pass legislation giving companies significant incentives to maximize their remote workforce. This would include tax incentives for “carbon avoidance” that could be quantitated by office space no longer occupied, commuter miles no longer driven and business trips no longer taken. Companies should also “do the right thing” and find ways to transition their employees to working from home. If we are truly on the cusp of a climate emergency and future pandemics are inevitable. What better time to make remote work a permanent change? Let’s “clear the air” on this and remember remote work, works for the environment.

Dr. John Williams is a board-certified occupational medicine physician and public health professional. He served as a senior medical director for UnitedHealth Group, and during his tenure there, he successfully supervised physicians and nurses working remotely, helping care for almost 2 million beneficiaries across five time zones.

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